Meditations, written by Marcus Aurelius almost two thousand years ago, is one of the Great Works of Western Literature (and I capitalized that, so you know it’s serious). It’s a fairly short book with no narrative or overall structure, just a series of little notes — scraps of philosophy, bits of advice, quotations, observations — about how to live a virtuous life. Countless readers over the centuries have relied on its wisdom. And it sat on my shelf for many months, unopened and unloved.
One of the few pleasant side effects of airplane travel is getting time to read. On the way down to New Orleans last Saturday, I read Meditations start to finish in just a few hours.
The translator, Gregory Hays, wrote an introduction that’s one-third as long as the text itself, and he makes a number of useful points. Here’s the single most important thing to understand about this book:
The author never meant for it to be published.
Even the title was added much later, by someone else. In fact, by all indications, Marcus Aurelius never meant for anyone besides himself to read these notes. They are for his own use and his own betterment.
The rough, personal nature of the writing explains some of its quirks — for instance, why it seems so disorganized. And, above all, why it’s so extremely repetitive.
Apart from the first chapter, which talks a bit about the people in his own life, the vast majority of notes are a rephrasing of one of these closely linked themes:
- Don’t seek pleasure. Don’t avoid pain. If you’re in pain, even intense pain, just ignore it.
- Life is short. You’re going to die. Everything changes. Man up and get on with it.
- Don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you. If they hate you, screw ’em. If they love you, well, they’re gonna die sooner or later.
- Expect nothing from other people and you won’t be disappointed. Be nice to everyone.
- Everything you do should be for the common good. Avoid books, art, music, and philosophy, except to the extent that they help you reach your selfless goals.
- See things for what they really are. Don’t get starstruck or sentimental. Even the purple Imperial robes are just sheep hair dipped in shellfish guts.
- History’s a big cycle, the same things happening again and again, with just the names changed. You think you’re special? You’re not special.
Here’s an example of one of the actual notes (a very short one), just to give you a taste:
To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.
All of this draws heavily on Stoic philosophy — the source of our modern word “stoic.”
For me, the book was an odd mix of depressing, inspiring, illogical, and wise.
There’s a lot to criticize about this kind of thinking. For starters, it’s not very practical. Saying “Ignore pain” is easy enough, but standing up to actual pain in real life is a lot more likely to succeed if you have a strategy.
My needle phobia, for instance. I’ve made big progress on that front, partly from just “manning up,” but mostly with the help of specific techniques: systematic desensitization, deep breathing, distraction, and so on. I’ve found these tactics far more useful than just telling myself “Don’t be afraid” or “Ignore the fear.”
What’s more, such demanding all-or-nothing standards can leave you rudderless when you fail to meet them — as you inevitably will, over and over. For me, self-discipline works a lot better when I ask not only “How can I make sure I do this?” but also “What will I do when I fail?” Such notions find little traction in this book.
I think there’s a logical gap, too. It seems inconsistent to me when you say “It doesn’t matter if I die, it doesn’t matter if I feel pain, everything around you will soon be gone,” but then also, “Devote your life to helping others because that’s all that matters.” Why do their lives matter so much, if your own death is such a trivial thing? I’m not arguing against sacrifice — if it’s necessary — I’m just talking about perspective.
More broadly, I think the quest for total selflessness can lead to a peculiar selfishness of its own. Expecting total virtue from yourself, martyring yourself for the common good, still places you on a sort of pedestal in your own mind. It often feels like people who just help others, without going on some quixotic quest to eradicate their own selfishness, end up doing a lot more good.
On the other hand, there’s something refreshing about such a spartan, clear, uncompromising worldview. It’s inspiring to hear someone say, “Look, just do the right thing. You don’t need a special method for it, it’s not going to be easy or pleasant, but just start on it, right now.”
I was also struck by the part about not focusing excessively on books, philosophy, and the arts. I’m a book guy, obviously. I love stories, whether on paper or on a screen. I tend to think of good stories as noble in their own right — and I still do think that. But I also know I have a tendency to get mired in fantasy worlds, to dwell on the characters and plots of TV shows and movies and novels so much that it distracts from real life, and dilutes the power of the stories, too. Even reading the news can become a kind of fantasy if it moves past understanding the world and into escaping the world.
Over the past few days, because of this book, I’ve been trying to focus more on what I really need to do, and on not getting mired in fantasies. And I’ve noticed a difference in my life already. I’m getting more done, I’m reaching more of my goals, and I’m happier because of it.
I know from experience that such life changes don’t last — at least, not in a clean, unbroken line. My life has been an endless series of cycles: up and down, productive and unproductive, happy and unhappy, disciplined and undisciplined. This will be another, and it will end.
But I’ve been thinking about those cycles, too. If I can keep in mind that the changes are cyclical, I think that’s an improvement in itself. When I’m “up,” it will remind me to be vigilant, to watch out for whatever might start a downward spiral, and try to avoid it. When I’m “down,” it will remind me that it’s temporary, and not to get too upset about it — I just need to look for the next chance to start upward again, and maybe that chance is right away.
Anyway. Meditations is a weird old book, and it has some problems, but it’s short and thought-provoking and maybe worth a read if you’re into that kind of thing.
Or not. You’re busy already. Instead of reading a book that says “Do the thing” — maybe just do the thing!
Have a good day.